Every Sunday, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, New Hampshire, asks congregants to give to the weekly offering, much like many other Unitarian Universalist congregations. And then Nashua does something unusual: they give it all away.
In the last twelve years, the church has donated the entire proceeds from its weekly collections—totaling about $250,000—to ninety-five diverse organizations and causes, some UU but mostly not. Many are local, some are national or international.
A handful of other UU churches also give away their entire offering every week. They range from large congregations, such as 1,957-member All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which donates about $100,000 each year, to much smaller congregations, such as the 122-member Unitarian Society of East Brunswick, New Jersey. UU congregations in Moscow, Idaho; Edmonds, Washington; Oak Park, Illinois; and Asheville, North Carolina, also donate their entire plates. Many other UU congregations give away some portion of their offerings.
Before 2003, the Nashua congregation used interest from endowed funds to donate money to charitable causes and organizations. But financial changes forced the congregation to begin using that endowed money—in addition to its regular stewardship efforts—for its own internal expenses.
Ellen Barr, a longtime member of the congregation who serves on the committee that decides which organizations and projects will receive the offerings, said many in the congregation were proud of the tradition of using endowment interest to help the larger community. They were upset the program was going away, wanted to find a way to keep support going, and settled on something the congregation hadn’t been doing: taking up an offering.
“Our feelings went from outrage at losing this program to a proposal to begin passing the plate,” Barr said. “We developed a process, and now it’s all on the Web.”
Organizations, some encouraged by the church’s members, submit a proposal through the church’s website. They are asked to request a specific amount they would like to receive, outline the intended use for the funds, and describe who they are and what they do. According to the website, the church’s Community Outreach Team screens the projects, looking for ones that are “working toward some social, economic, educational, or denominational need in our community” consistent with UUA Principles, and which are for a specific project or program rather than general operating expenses.
Some donations are small, some up to thousands of dollars.
If approved for a donation, an organization must agree to send a representative to see the congregation on a Sunday, usually speaking during the service about the project and meeting people at coffee hour. In many cases, Barr said, the relationship between the congregation and organization develops into something much deeper than money.
“It isn’t just financial,” Barr said. “In so many instances, the outreach collection has meant opening up a relationship with the organization and getting involved in other ways.”
The congregation donated to an organization in a nearby community that provides transitional housing for families experiencing homelessness. As a result, congregants visited the organization, learned more about the issue, and ultimately became volunteers. Last fall, a program that was part of Stop Hunger Now received funds and volunteer support to assemble 10,000 meals it sent to Haiti.
The program has helped the congregation, too, said the Rev. Dr. Janet Newman, the church’s interim minister. “The practice of consistent giving from congregants’ pockets and checkbooks brings benefits beyond supporting the recipients,” she said. “When members are made aware of the needs of others beyond the congregation and then provide for those needs, they live their UU ideal of making the world a better place for all.”